Phil Lesh Interview
by Bob Putignano
It’s not often one gets to interview a near biblical musician such as Phil Lesh. Lets face it Lesh is one of a small handful of bassist’s who effectively pioneered and changed the course of the river of R&R, with his expansive creativity and thundering sound -- which was one of the cornerstones of (arguably) the most open minded rock and roll band of all time -- The Grateful Dead.
Lesh: Hi Bob, Fire away!
BobP: Did you guys ever think that your music would be as lasting as it continues to be?
Lesh: We were always in the moment, especially the first ten years, nobody ever thought about that.
BobP: The most memorable nights for me were the nights you in Jerry were operating seemingly in telepathic mode, almost of one mind. What’s amazing is that you never played bass till Jerry asked you.
Lesh: That’s correct, that’s why I joined the band. Jerry really put a lot on me, but I knew instantly that the Dead would be major.
BobP: Thinking about how crazy things were at the time with all that you were doing (laughs) to have the insight and desire to develop your chops was amazing.
Phil: Thanks, but we worked at it too, we played together every day, sometimes all day for at least two years.
BobP: My friend Michael Lydon told me that he knew the Dead in the late ‘60’s and that Jerry constantly played his guitar.
Phil: I remember Michael, he wrote a major piece on us back then, and that is true about Jerry, all the way through the end of his life he had that guitar going, the only times he didn’t was when he had a paint or air brush doing art.
BobP: It seems that a lot of artists loose that creative desire and edge overtime?
Lesh: I don’t understand that. Music is infinite; you can never get to the bottom of it. How could anyone be bored? Every bar that goes by provides endless possibilities that pop up like flowers.
BobP: I agree, I am constantly looking for new, but it’s hard to find?
Lesh: What do you mean?
BobP: Music that’s creative -- sparks my attention and has that ability to smack me in the face.
Lesh: That’s right! Stravinsky said “astonish me!” That is what I try to do every night with my band.
BobP: Great Phil, don’t stop!
Phil: For as long as I am vertical, I am going to keep on playing- pal!
BobP: Your musical interests are wide: classical, avant-garde, jazz, and then rock.
Lesh: It’s all music to me, interesting music is what manifests different influences and directions. The thing about the Dead is that we had five different guys with more than five different types of influences. We would take the best of those influences and fuse them together into something that had never been done before. That is what creative artists do, as there is not a lot that is new, like the song says “you take what you need, and leave the rest.”
BobP: I wish music would accept more of your crossover approach.
Lesh: That’s my middle name (crossover), and what it’s about for me.
BobP: You weren’t influenced much by other bass players?
Lesh: There wasn’t that much interest in rock bass when the band started. McCartney, James Jamerson, and Jack Casady were influential -- but one of the reasons Jerry asked me to join the band was that he did not think that I would bring in any preconceived notions to our music, that is what he wanted, and definitely what I wanted to do.
Lesh: He was our guy, the front man, the soul of the band, the “go to” guy!
BobP: Songs like “Good Lovin’” “Hard to Handle” and “Lovelight” always knocked me out. You guys turned me on to Bobby Blue Bland because of “Turn on Your Lovelight.”
Phil: You know we didn’t get “Good Lovin’” from the Rascals, Pig got it from a single by “The Olympics.” He was always hanging around record shops, a real collector, and he knew those great soul and blues songs. We went to see Bobby Blue at the Fillmore and when Bobby sang “Lovelight”, Pig goes “aha- we’re gonna grab this one.”
BobP: The elasticity you gave those songs was incredible!
Lesh: That had a lot to do with Pigpen who would go off into he raves and tell a story, and we would just follow and create the jams. We always tried to connect with Pigpen, even after he was gone, which gave us opportunities to revert to that mentality, we also wanted to give Pigpen the honor he deserved!
BobP: 1972 and Godchaux?
Keith was the guy! From the first time he played with us he played all the right stuff. Remember we never had a piano player till Keith, as Pigpen and Constanten played organ. Keith gave us that sound and complemented Jerry so well.
BobP: Europe 72’ ?
Lesh: Oh yeah, a very memorable experience -- I am hoping to put out every show from that tour, as our playing was so consistent.
BobP: “Blues for Allah” was one my favorite in-studio recordings.
Lesh: Mine too, but “Anthem of the Sun” is my favorite.
BobP: That was first time anyone melded live and in-studio tracks together?
Lesh: Yep, we took a lot of ideas from avant-garde classical music, and grafted it to R&R, it works particularly well.
BobP: Are you planning to record Phil & Friends?
Lesh: No! I don’t have plans to record, records don’t do it, records are over! I don’t like having to fix anything that will always be the same. I don’t think making a record is viable- in terms of the artistic experience that I am trying to put across. I want that spontaneity and freshness to be there in every performance, if I put it on a CD its going to get old.
BobP: Do these thoughts reflect your feelings of the record companies?
Lesh: That’s a whole other issue, which is so bogus! Making records for a company that pays to get records played on the radio, and it goes nowhere. It just doesn’t work for me!
BobP: In your book, your recollection of specific events is amazing.
Lesh: It amazed me too! (big laughs) But seriously, that’s what made me decide to write the book. If I could remember that clearly- than that’s a sign that I am the person to write this story.
BobP: No one has really documented the inside story on the Dead. As a fan, Garcia seemed mythical, very little has been written about Pigpen and everyone else who was in the band. It’s kind of cool that after all these years that I have a better idea of what you guys were thinking about when you did all of those great shows.
Lesh: Now someone has documented it, and that was the story I wanted to tell.
BobP: Thanks Phil.
Lesh: Thank you Bob. Please send me a copy of your article when it comes out in Goldmine, also what you edit and air on your radio show. I will leave word with my publicist to make sure we meet backstage when I come to NYC this fall.
One noteworthy thing happened before we hung up the phone. I asked Phil if he would mind doing a radio ID for me and WFDU. He said no problem, but when he introduced himself he said “Hi: this is Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, etc.”
It’s pretty interesting to note that Phil made that direct and proud connection to the good old Grateful Dead. I didn’t realize he had done that until a day later, but it certainly left a memorable impression on me.
Radio Host WFDU’s “Sounds of Blue”
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society